Monthly Archive for September, 2008

Corporate Community Trend: Focus on People

I was looking at the new SocialText 3.0 release this morning, which TechCrunch describes as a blend of “Facebook, Twitter and the Enterprise”, when I started thinking about a trend that I have been noticing for quite a while related to companies, communities, and community software.

The Software

SocialText has been known for their wiki software; however, the latest 3.0 release shifts the focus more toward people with the new SocialText People (social networking functionality) and Dashboard (attention stream management of conversations, colleagues and more). The wiki is still the core part of the product, but this additional functionality shifts the focus onto people.

Jive Software also recently released a new version of Clearspace, and the major differences between this release and the previous ones are also focused on people with social networking and groups functionality leading the way.

These are just a couple of examples of community software focused on the enterprise; however, they are incorporating the features that people have been using extensively in their personal online community interactions through sites like Facebook, Twitter, and more to connect with other people.

The Trend

If you look at the early community software platforms and other early ways of building communities (mailing lists, etc.), the focus was on the data more than the person. Inside companies, the focus was similar. Companies had knowledge bases, document repositories, email and other ways for people to share data. Most of these applications made it easy to find data, but difficult to find out any real information about the people behind the data. Even some of the applications designed to help coworkers find other people within the company were often skill based, which made it easy to find someone with Java programming expertise but not the sort of information that tells you about the person behind the skill set.

I’ve said many times in presentations and here on this blog that communities are all about the people. This has always been an important concept, but it has been more true in social communities and less true in many corporate communities. Over the past months, I have been seeing a bigger trend toward companies and other organizations putting the focus on the people in corporate communities. The information is still important, but I like seeing this shift toward people. Knowing more about the person behind the data can help put the data into context. For example, information about venture capital investments coming from me would be less credible than information about venture capital from Guy Kawasaki.

Having the functionality to connect with other people in a corporate community, whether it is an internal company community or an external community focused on a company’s products, helps us strengthen our connections with other people who share similar interests. This trend toward putting the focus on people is an important step in the right direction for corporate communities.

Related Fast Wonder Blog posts

Recent Links on Ma.gnolia

A few interesting things this week …

Jason Nazar’s Blog » Blog Archive » 10 Lessons Startups Can Learn From Superheroes

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Building a Community is like Hosting a Party. Don’t Be a Bad Party Host! at Josh Bancroft’s TinyScreenfuls.com

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Decreasing Connections While Increasing Our Networks

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Legion of Tech Board Elections in December at Legion of Tech

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Elections for the Legion of Tech Board

Do you love Ignite, BarCamp, Startupalooza, and the other events organized by Legion of Tech? If so, you might be interested to know that nominations for new board members are due on November 1. We will also be forming a new advisory committee if you would prefer to help out with a smaller time commitment. The entire process is documented on the Legion of Tech site with detailed information about responsibilities and the elections.

I know that at least three people currently on the board have decided not to run for next year due to personal time constraints, new jobs, etc. This means that there are plenty of opportunities for you to get involved this year.

If you want to get involved, take a look at the detailed blog post and then talk to a current board member to get nominated.

For anyone living under a rock or not living in Portland, Legion of Tech is an Oregon non-profit organization working hard to grow and nurture the local Portland community through free, educational, community-run technology events. I am a co-founder of the organization, which was formed in December of 2007, and I currently serve as Chair. I plan to run again for the board, and I have had a great time participating in Legion of Tech over the past year.

I hope to see the rest of you out at our upcoming events, including WhereCampPDX October 17th – 19th and Ignite Portland 4 on November 13th.

Related Fast Wonder blog posts:

Introduction to Facebook for Companies and Organizations

Updated 4/7/09: I have a new, updated post about getting started with Facebook for your company or organization that you may want to read instead of this one.

Facebook is probably the social network that has the broadest audience and the most community functionality of any of the big services right now. You can find large numbers of college students, people working in the technology industry, and many people in the 20 – 40 year old range; however, I am starting to see anecdotal evidence of some people in the older age ranges starting to join Facebook.

There are several ways to engage with people on Facebook.

  • Individuals. Make sure that some people in your company are on Facebook as individuals. This is the best way to learn how people use Facebook if you haven’t already used it. I would start by getting a personal account, entering your personal profile information, and friending a few people that you know. It’s a great way to learn more about how people use Facebook, and it will help you better understand how to use it for your company.
  • Company page. After you are comfortable using Facebook as an individual, you should create a company page. Do not create a personal profile on Facebook for your company. Those look artificial and weird in addition to being outside of what people expect to see on Facebook. A company page lets you provide information about your company along with an event calendar, video, photos, discussion board, and much more. People can then choose to become “fans” of your company, and you can use this page as a lightweight community effort.
  • Groups. You can create a group on Facebook around any imaginable topic. I’ve seen groups used fairly successfully for lightweight community activities, especially when they also involve an in person element. The Online Community Roundtable events in San Francisco are organized using a Facebook group.
  • Applications. It might also make sense for your company to create an application that people can use on Facebook, but this would only be relevant to a small number of technology companies. The application could interface with your existing technologies the way that applications for Upcoming, Twitter, and others make it easy to update Facebook with information from those services. Another option is to make something purely for fun that people can use on Facebook.

There are certainly other ways to use Facebook, but this covers the basic ways that most companies will want to use it. In general, remember to participate as a person first and a company second, and remember that the guiding principles that I have talked about so many times before on this blog still apply to using Facebook.

Please feel free to add comments with other ways that you like to see companies engage with people on Facebook.

Related Fast Wonder Blog posts

Musings on Community Ownership

Community ownership is a tricky issue. In this post, I am not talking about legal ownership, but about something a little more abstract. I’m sure the courts would come up with a different conclusion than the one that I propose here. I’m really talking about the sense of ownership that people feel for something that they are passionate about because they helped to create it in some way. This sense of ownership is a big part of what makes an active community so special and interesting.

Too many people and companies think that they “own” their community with a level of ownership that includes exerting too much control over the members participating in the community. Some people delete posts or comments containing criticisms that don’t show them in the best light. The natural instinct for some people is to bury anything that is less than favorable, but this is not a healthy approach for anyone (it’s how we end up with companies like Enron).

A better approach is to think of it this way: the community “owns” the community, and the employees of an organization or other people hosting the community are an integral part of that community. If you think of yourselves as an equal member of the community, it might be more natural to have conversations about negative criticism and work to resolve them together. Maybe this is just semantics, but I think it can help people think about the community in a way that facilitates collaboration and cooperation.

Anyone who starts a community is responsible for a few things. Clearly, they do own the infrastructure and the environment where the online community software resides. As a result, they should feel a responsibility to maintain the software and keep it running well. They are also responsible for facilitating the discussions and participating in the community along with the other community members. Finally, they are also responsible for moderation and keeping people in check by deleting spam, porn and other content that is truly inappropriate for the community. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, negative comments do not count as “inappropriate” for the sake of moderation.

If the company doesn’t play nice with the community, the community will take their discussions elsewhere. Thinking about the issue of ownership in a way that encourages community members to consider themselves a real part of the community is just one more way to encourage people to remain actively engaged in the community.

Promoting Your Community Efforts the Right Way

Last week, I started a series focused on corporate communities with posts about planning and getting started, maintaining a successful community, and structuring your community. In this final post for the corporate community series, we will spend some time on the right and wrong ways to promote your community efforts. Some of this advice also applies more broadly to promotion of other social media efforts as well.

Good ways to get the word out about your community

I wish there was an easy answer to the best way to get the word out about your community; however, it really comes down to basic marketing principles. Do your research to find your audience and talk about your community efforts in places that your target audience will see it. The specific methods you use to promote your community will depend on the type of community and the target audience. If your company already has an existing customer base, you should be using existing promotional vehicles to reach your customers. Look at the ways that you typically market your products, and include information about your community efforts in those promotions.

You should augment your traditional promotions with social media keeping in mind the guiding principles that I talked about in an earlier post. The key is to engage with social media on the community’s terms with a focus on having a conversation with people, not a focus on pushing your messages at people. Talk openly and honestly about the new community on your corporate blog with information about why you launched it, what you hope to get out of it, and what you hope the members will get out of the community. People involved in the community effort can write personal blog entries or Twitter posts that talk specifically about their involvement in the new community. Audio or video podcasts might also be a good idea.

With any new community, always run a limited beta with your existing customers or a few potential customers if your company is still new. There are many benefits of running a beta. First, you can get their feedback and make improvements in the community before you launch. Second, you get a good base of initial content from people outside of the company, so that when you launch, it already looks like an active community. Third, these existing beta users can help promote the community by bringing in coworkers, friends, and others who might be interested in joining your community.

You might also consider providing small incentives for people to join and participate. You do not want people joining just to get the incentive and never coming back to participate, but some small incentive (t-shirt, etc.) can sometimes be a nice thank you gesture for signing up. Don’t forget to make a special effort to find some way to reward the early beta participants after launch with special status, discounts, t-shirts, or something to say thank you.

Things to avoid when promoting your community

Do not promote your community on your competitor’s sites. This is just slimy, and it will not be productive. The potential for backlash and negative publicity is not worth the one or two customers that you might pick up. It will also encourage your competitor to retaliate by promoting within your community.

Do not use social media (twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc.) with the sole purpose of pimping your products (go back to the guiding principles post for more details). If you are already using social media, you should talk about your ideas, thoughts, and products with a personal spin (what YOU are doing as an individual in the new community).

Should you promote your products in the community?

The short answer is no, but it isn’t really an absolute (yes / no) answer; it is really more of a continuum. Do not use your community to sell anything. Think of the community as way to generate awareness, not a place to close sales. Use your community to get people excited about your products: answer questions, talk about new features, and encourage people share stories about your product or company (customers and employees). If you can get people excited about your products, they will be motivated to figure out how to buy them.

ForumOne’s report on Marketing and Online Communities does a good job of highlighting the challenges associated with using your community as a marketing channel.

I would be interested to learn more about what has or has not worked well for you in the comments.

Related Fast Wonder Blog posts

Recent Links on Ma.gnolia

A few interesting things this week …

WhereCampPDX Blog

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Groupware Bad

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Seven Social Media Consultants That Deliver Tangible Value – ReadWriteWeb

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Online Community Compensation: Salaries By Region – Online Community Report

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How To Build Your Personal Brand | Social Media Explorer

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Cisco Buys Jabber to Boost Enterprise Instant Messaging

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Microsoft’s ‘I’m a PC’ ad images made on Macs

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TED | TEDBlog: 10 things you need to know before you pitch a VC: David S. Rose on TED.com

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A Structure for Your Corporate Community

Lately, I have been thinking quite a bit about corporate communities as I work with clients who are in the process of creating new online communities or improving their existing communities. Earlier this week, I blogged about planning and getting started with an online corporate community and maintaining a successful corporate community. I thought that it would be a good idea to also spend a little time on the things that you should be thinking about when coming up with a structure for your community.

It is important to keep in mind that every community software package is likely to have unique strengths and limitations when it comes to configuring your community. From a design and architecture perspective, I strongly recommend looking at this strengths and limitations of the platform and taking them into account before starting any design or architecture work. Make sure that any customizations that you do will be compatible with the community platform and will be easy to upgrade to future versions of the software. I have seen way too many companies try to shoe horn a design that just is not compatible with the platform they selected. In most cases, they are able to make it work for the initial launch, but then spend way too much time and effort during every upgrade or even worse, they get themselves into a situation where upgrading the platform or applying bug fixes becomes nearly impossible.

You should also take a careful look at how much structure to put in place when determining the category or discussion forum structure for your community. The specific categories will depend on the type of community and your specific situation, but I generally look at these three basic approaches: emergent, highly-structured, and adaptive.

Emergent

In an emergent structure, very few (if any) categories are defined before launch, and the structure is allowed to emerge based on the discussions that people are interested in having within your community. As the discussions unfold, you should start to see some common themes. New categories are created and discussions are placed into these categories based on the themes that are emerging in the community.

Advantages to the emergent approach.

  • It is certainly the easiest to implement when creating a new community, since very little is defined before launch.
  • User buy-in may also be higher, since the community members see themselves helping to create the structure by discussing topics relevant to their situation.
  • You might also end up with something completely unanticipated that works very well, but is something that you never would have thought of creating as a category.

Disadvantages to the emergent approach.

  • Community members may get writer’s block when faced with an unstructured community. If confusion sets in and users can’t figure out how to participate, they may never return to the community.
  • A few early members may take the community so far off-topic that it becomes useless for the purpose that it was created to serve. While this is much less important for a social community, it can be devastating to a corporate community.
  • It can be more difficult to maintain in the early days of the community, since you will need to rearrange posts into newly created categories.

I do not generally recommend an emergent structure for corporate communities; however, I could see it being useful in certain situations. In an environment where the industry or product was undefined or unclear and you wanted to avoid constraining people’s ideas into categories, allowing the structure to emerge might generate more innovative or unusual discussions. This structure is also more commonly and more effectively used in social (non-corporate) communities.

Highly Structured

In a highly structured community, all possible categories are defined before the community launch in great detail.

Advantages to the highly structured approach.

  • The company creating the community has full control over the community structure with categories clearly defined in areas where people should focus their discussions.
  • The community members have clear expectations about the types of conversations that are appropriate for the community.

Disadvantages to the highly structured approach.

  • It is a restrictive and inflexible with fewer opportunities for the community to take the discussions into new areas.
  • The company may also face more community resistance, since the community members did not have any input into the structure.
  • The end result might also be a structure that does not work for the community with categories that do not resonate with the intended audience.
  • Too many categories can also make the community seem very fragmented and give the appearance of less participation. This is particularly true if too many narrow categories are selected.

This structure may work fine in certain situations where the categories can be easily predicted and the environment is well understood; however, it can be a bit heavy handed. When it is used, I recommend sticking with broader categories rather than narrow ones whenever possible. Broad categories with more participation will make the community look much more active than if the same amount of participation is split among twice as many categories.

I made the mistake of using this approach when I created the structure for the Jivespace community. I defined way too many narrow categories and put too much structure in place. There were a few categories that people used most of the time, and a few that were rarely used. I would have been better off if I had defined about half as many categories or if I had used the adaptive approach described below.

Adaptive

The adaptive approach is really a hybrid between the emergent and highly structured approaches. A few very broad categories are created to get the community started in the right direction, and additional categories are created as needed after people start participating.

Advantages of the adaptive approach.

  • Better user buy-in, since the community members have some influence over the structure.
  • The company maintains some control over the initial structure to help ensure that the discussions fulfill the purpose of the community.
  • The community may also evolve in unanticipated positive directions that would not have been anticipated in advance.

Disadvantages of the adaptive approach.

  • The company has a little less control over the structure.
  • Getting user traction early in the process is required to help set the direction.

In most situations the adaptive approach is the one that I recommend. It is the most flexible, and it is fairly easy to implement.

Allowing Off Topic Discussions

When you create the structure for your community, you should assume that people will have some off topic discussions in your community. The best way to facilitate this without disrupting the rest of the community is to create a place where people can have these discussions. While they may be slightly off topic, I have found them quite productive for the community on occasion. For example, I’ve seen people using the community to find out which other members were planning to attend an upcoming conference on a related topic. As a community manager, I have used them to talk about interesting things going on in the company or the industry that did not directly relate to community. I caution against calling it something like “off topic”, since people may take you up on the offer to discuss too many random topics. I’ve had pretty good luck calling it “the lounge” or something similar.

Ultimately, the structure you select for your community will depend on your individual situation. No one structure is right or wrong for every situation, so you may need to experiment a little to get it right for you. During the beta phase for your community, you can get quite a bit of feedback about the structure allowing for some adjustments prior to the public launch.

You should also plan to adjust the structure over time regardless of which approach you use. The industry and your products will change over time, and the community structure will need to evolve along with these changes.

What are your tips for organizing and structuring your community?

Related Fast Wonder Blog posts

Maintaining a Successful Corporate Community

Apparently, this is corporate community week on the Fast Wonder Blog. I decided to follow up my post on Monday about Custom Corporate Communities: Planning and Getting Started with this post containing tips about what to do and what to avoid doing if you want to have a successful corporate community. While some of these tips are specific to corporate communities, most of them also apply to other types of communities as well.

The are many ways for a company to encourage or discourage participation in their community just by the way employees behave in the community, the way the community is facilitated, and how the infrastructure is maintained. There are a few things you can do to help ensure that the community successful, while other activities are likely to drive the community away. This post will cover both the do’s and don’ts along with some tips for maintaining a successful community.

What makes a community work

Being open and transparent. Being as open and transparent as possible will improve trust within the community. It often helps to explain the “why” behind some of your decisions to avoid being seen as closed or defensive. In general people are more understanding, especially about difficult topics if you can explain why the company responds in a certain way.

A company who listens (to good and bad). It is easy to listen and respond when people say nice things about you or your company, but you should also be responding when people complain or provide negative feedback. The key is to respond constructively with something helpful: a suggestion, information about upcoming changes, or just a simple thank you.

Actively engaged in the community. The company should not dominate the community, but they should be actively participating by creating new content, responding to feedback, and in general being visible in the community.

Encouraging new members. Whenever possible, welcome new members of the community, especially if they are particularly actively in the community.

Making it easy for people to participate. Reduce the barriers to entry for people to participate and make it as easy as possible to join the community. Allowing people to view content before joining and a simple sign-up form with very few required fields can go a long way toward reducing the barriers to participation.

Integration into other relevant areas of the site. In most cases, it is simple to pull information from your community into static areas of your website. This makes your static website seem less static, and it drives more people to your community when they see a piece of content that they are interested in reading. For example, if you have a static page describing your efforts in sustainability, you could pull the 5 most recent blog posts or discussions from the sustainability section of your community into a sidebar on the static page.

What to avoid

Community is lip service. People can tell when a company creates a community to give the appearance of listening, while not really considering it a serious endeavor. If you aren’t serious about engaging with your community, then you might be better off not spending the effort to create one.

Pushing marketing messages. When pushing marketing messages out to the community members takes precedence over 2-way conversations and collaboration, you will start to see your community disappear. A community is about conversations between people, and you can talk about your products, but it should be done in a relevant and conversational tone, instead of sounding like a pitch or advertisement.

Deleting the negative. You should be responding to criticism, not deleting it. Again, communities are about conversation. If people feel like you are putting duct tape over their mouths when they express anything negative about the company, these people will simply leave their negative comments somewhere else on the internet where it is likely more people will see the criticism and not hear your side of the story.

Barriers to collaboration. Community software, configuration, or policies can often create barriers to collaboration. Configure the software to make it easy for people to find content and sign up for the community. Your policies should create guidelines for use that help keep the community healthy without being so heavy handed that people aren’t interested in participating. Flickr’s community guidelines are a good example of how to write guidelines that are simple and even fun to read.

Neglected communities. Nobody wants to participate in a corporate community where no one in the company monitors or responds to questions or feedback. There are too many of these floating around the internet, so make sure that you have the resources to give your community care and feeding over the life of the community.

Dealing with the difficult

Every community has its fair share of difficulties. While you can never anticipate every difficult experience, many of them seem to fall into one of these four categories.

Negative Comments. As I mentioned earlier, do not delete negative feedback or negative comments. I generally hold off before responding to the negative feedback to see if other non-employee community members come to my rescue first. If not, you’ll need to respond constructively and honestly with as much information as you are able to provide, and you need to respond without getting defensive.

Spammers. Spammers are a huge, painful thorn in a community manager’s side. You should put aggressive, automated measures in place to deal with spam; however, also be prepared for them to find ways around your spam filters. Spammers are a creative group, and they will find ways to spam your community that you never thought was possible. Deal with the spam as quickly and completely as possible.

Pain in the ass. There are always those people who are just a pain. They complain that your documentation has a typo, you don’t file bugs quickly enough, or anything else that isn’t getting done to their exacting standards. In many cases, these are people who really do want to make things better. My advice in this case may sound counter-intuitive, but you should put them to work if possible and reward their efforts. If they complain about the documentation, see if you can convince them to re-write a section. If that works, you might find other ways to put them to work to channel that energy into fixing instead of complaining.

Don’t feed the trolls. These are the people who complain and act out because they want attention. They will take up as much of your time as you give them in pointless arguments and distractions. It can be difficult for many people not to take the bait. Ignore them and resist the urge to give them the attention they crave. If they don’t find someone to argue with, they will generally move on to another community where they can make trouble.

No community is perfect

You need to keep in mind that no community will ever be perfect: things will go wrong; your community software will have bugs; and people will get defensive or irate. In addition to the internal factors in the community, there are external influences that can creep into the community. Companies have PR nightmares that drive people into the community in droves to complain, but in great communities, the company responds effectively, addresses the issue, and works to resolve it quickly. When you have one of these crisis situations, keep the focus on summarizing and fixing, instead of blaming and justifying. Maintain open communication channels and deal with these imperfections and issues as quickly and openly as possible.

What are your favorite tips to help companies have great communities?

Related Fast Wonder Blog posts

ReadWriteWeb's Seven Social Media Consultants

Wow. I’m honored to have made Marshall’s list of Seven Social Media Consultants That Deliver Tangible Value on ReadWriteWeb today:

In this post we highlight seven social media consultants that consistently bring tangible value to the table. These folks aren’t full of hot air – they use their blogs to offer clear examples, links, tutorials and other resources you can put to use. If the goods you can see for free are so solid, that’s all the more reason to investigate paying for these peoples’ services.

The full list includes:

Specifically, here is Marshall’s assessment of my consulting practice (good and bad):

Dawn Foster is a relatively new entrant into the consulting world but her blog Fast Wonder is already pumping out the usable information and tools.

She’s built an enthusiastic community of supporters by delivering things like Brand Dashboards, Yahoo! Pipes and RSS Hacks and a review of a recent Community Manager compensation study.

While Foster’s work with research and tools is exciting, we feel less inspired by the parts of her discourse that are short on detailed examples. Her years of experience at Jive Software, Compiere and Intel are clearly helpful in consulting but we hope that with more consulting experience she’ll be able to offer a wider variety of examples to back up the advice she gives.

For a new consultancy, though, Fast Wonder is quickly gathering value through work with bleeding edge projects like the pseudo-stealth location-based social network Shizzow.

I’m OK with this assessment. I launched my consulting practice less than three months ago, so I think the criticism of needing more examples is fair. I’ve been working with communities in one form or another since around 2001 starting with open source communities on behalf of Intel. Later I worked for Compiere and Jive, and I am currently responsible for the Shizzow community. I also do quite a bit of community work within the Portland tech community through Legion of Tech by organizing local meetups and events. While I have great examples from these activities, it is still a relatively small number of companies. On the upside, my consulting practice is really starting to take off, and I hope to be able to offer more examples over the next few months.

Again, I feel honored to be included on this list, which includes several people that I admire and whose blogs I read regularly.